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CAIR and Bender reject the Jewish organizations’ claims that the group is in any way extreme. “There will always be those who will try to demonize other groups,” Bender said. “As someone who has long supported Palestinian rights and was critical of the policy of occupation, I find no contradiction between my long-stated opinions on the Middle East and those of CAIR.”
Israel is not a top issue for CAIR, especially its branches, which tend to deal more with countering discrimination against Muslims within the local community. Still, for many in the Jewish community, the Arab-Israeli issue is viewed as the key obstacle distancing CAIR from the American Jewish establishment.
Could having an American Jew in a leadership position bridge the divides between the two sides? Most respond with a mix of hope and skepticism.
“There’s always potential for change,” Hussein said, while noting that building ties with Jewish organizations wasn’t the motivation behind hiring Bender for the post. “Those who are not in contact with CAIR should come to the table and understand that we are a civil rights organization.”
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said in a statement to the Forward that “time will tell.” Bender’s Jewish faith, he said, does not necessarily matter. “Unfortunately, there are Jews who are anti-Jewish and anti-Israel,” Foxman added, “but we will wait and see.”
Bender’s interest in the Muslim community began after the 9/11 terror attacks. A video and television producer, he began organizing interfaith meetings and speaking out against expressions of Islamophobia that have increased following the attacks.
In 2009, the documentary he directed, “Out of Cordoba: Averroes and Maimonides in Their Time and Ours,” was released. The film is “about Jews, Muslims and Christians struggling against the hijacking of their religions by extremists,” Bender wrote in a short description accompanying the movie.
The film focuses on two historical contemporaries from medieval Spain: the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Muslim thinker Averroes. Through these two profiles, Bender sought to challenge “the propositions that there is an inevitable ‘clash of civilizations’ between the West and the Muslim world.”
For the past two years, Bender has been traveling with the movie to Jewish and Muslim communities nationwide, speaking about the need for greater interfaith understanding. In the 1980s Bender was active in several Jewish progressive organizations advocating a two-state solution. He later served as executive director of the American Friends of Meretz, the left-wing Israeli political party.
His job at CAIR-Philadelphia, one of a network of 20 independent chapters across the country, will focus primarily on countering anti-Muslim discrimination. In recent years the chapter has been among the key groups fighting against anti-Sharia laws proposed in Pennsylvania. It has spoken out publicly against anti-Muslim stereotypes following the Boston marathon bombing.
Bender’s background in filmmaking and public speaking, the group’s lay leaders noted, made him fit for the role of a spokesman for the organization and for Muslim civil rights.
“I’ve never had any question or negative feeling about CAIR ever since I came in contact with them,” Bender said. “I’ve never encountered any anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic sentiment. The opposite is true.”